Rolling on the riversThe Han River in Seoul doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of water sports. Nor does the Nakdong, which flows near Busan. Last year, 15 people were indicted for dumping more than 270 tons of toxic chemicals into a Han River tributary. The Nakdong River gets a heavy share of agricultural runoff every time it rains, and is infamous for the Doosan conglomerate having dumped 300 tons of cancer-causing phenol into its waters in 1991.
To see a person splashing, paddling or wading in those rivers is a sign of faith, stupidity or not having any better place to go. If you want to see rivers that still run clean and clear as they cascade over boulders ― the kind of river you wouldn’t mind getting dunked into ― you need to head to the rivers that hold Korea’s best whitewater.
The epicenter of the nation’s whitewater action is in Gangwon province, east of Seoul. Its mountainous topography hosts the country’s most rugged national parks, and flowing through it are three fast-flowing, clear-water rivers that make up the core of Korean whitewater action. Want proof of the water’s purity? This area is home to native mountain trout ― a sensitive fish that acts as a kind of barometer of water cleanliness.
The Dong River snakes through 51 kilometers (32 miles) of rock escarpments and jagged cliffs in the Eorayeon Valley. It’s the gentlest of the three rivers, better for a laid-back float, and suitable for bringing the kids. With moderate rapids, rafters enjoy the meandering of the river as it cuts back and forth into the limestone walls.
People are able to enjoy this river and its beautiful ecosystem because it’s a success story of grassroots social action. The Dong River was once in danger of being dammed and turned into a trickling creek. Environmental groups rallied citizens throughout the country to protest the plans for dam construction. In June 2000, President Kim Dae-jung announced the cancellation of the dam project, and the Dong River still runs free.
The Hantan River might not be so lucky. Flowing close enough to the border that you can see the peaks of North Korean mountains off in the distance, the river is currently slated for dam construction. As in the case of the Dong River, environmentalists are protesting, even though the Korean Water Resources Corp. claims it will be an “eco-friendly” dam that includes “a pathway for animals” and an oxymoronic “greenhouse for wildflowers.”
For the Hantan, this would be the second round in the battle of man versus nature. In 1985, the Yuncheon Dam was built on the river; in the rainy summer of 1999, the dam broke and the river destroyed more than 700 households. A crumbled concrete wall is all that remains. The new dam is to be built several kilometers upstream; local residents worry that since the Hantan is the only watershed in the region, no dam will be able to hold back the flood once the serious rains come.
Heavy rainfall is key to the intensity of any whitewater experience. It can mean the difference between a wild adrenaline rush on frothing rapids and a lazy, Huck Finn-style float on a docile river. Whitewater rapids are rated on a scale from Class One (easy riffles and small waves) to Class Six (extreme, ultra-dangerous rapids that make even experts think twice). Rainfall plays a part in this.
The Hantan gets its mojo rapids from the rainfall, as does the Naerin River. Brandon Butler, an expat who has kayaked the Naerin, understands the fluctuations from firsthand experience.
“After a couple of days of heavy rain, I've seen some very scary stuff ― I’ve done a few and walked a few,” he says. (“Walked a few” refers to the kayaker’s practice of getting out and hauling his boat past a danger spot when the rapids get too intense.)
“Class Sixes might be more rare, but there are definitely some Fives after the summer rains,” Butler says of the Naerin. “But the water drops within a day or two after the rain stops; then you’re back to Twos mostly, and a few Threes. We did some wild paddling during the monsoon rains last summer.”
The Naerin is the premier river for Korea’s nascent whitewater kayaking scene. Butler is a member of Blue Wave, Korea’s oldest and largest kayaking club.
“We mostly paddle the upper section of the Naerin where there are no rafts,” he says. “It takes us about two to three hours to do the usual run, with three or four fun rapids (Class Three unless there’s a heavy rain) and a few smaller ones. The lower Naerin, the ‘rafting course’ as they call it, is about a three-hour course.”
Gangwon province might be too far to travel for people who live on the other side of the country. For them, the Gyeongho River, running along the eastern edge of Jirisan National Park, is the place to go. The stretch of river around the Sancheong area holds the fastest water before the Gyeongho flows into the Jinyang Reservoir.
Kim Seung-shik is the owner and operator of Man and Sea Leisure Club. Managing 51 rafts, he is the largest outfitter on the Gyeongho River. His operation can handle as many as 2,000 rafters per day, and his business is one of a dozen or so rafting companies along the river.
Rafting does have its inherent risks. Life vests and helmets are provided, and are mandatory. Many parts of the rivers are shallow and could be waded, but there are surprisingly deep holes in the stretches of rapids where the water will be over your head. If you fall out of the raft, the universal advice is to go with the flow, feet first, and use your feet to navigate any obstacles as you make your way to the shore.
The biggest dangers are boulders and rocks, so it’s prudent to wear your helmet without complaint. Getting dunked in a high-speed current and smacking your head into a procession of submerged boulders will end your rafting trip very quickly.
It’s a participatory sport, and you’ll be expected to paddle even though the current will do most of the work. Dress expecting to get wet. Bring a swimsuit or shorts, T-shirt, sunscreen and old sneakers or river sandals. Rafts can hold between three and 10 people, and guides accompany each raft. Some outfitters may also have inflatable kayaks for rent. Costs range from 30,000 won ($26) for roughly a half day to 60,000 won for a full day.
Don’t expect to be the only raft on the river as you commune with nature ― the other whitewater rivers in Gangwon province are just as busy, if not more so. The Dong River, part of a national conservation area, has an imposed limit of 7,000 people per day. The rafting outfitters operate every day during the peak season, rain or shine. (“Rafting in the rain is better,” says Kim.) Rafting season is roughly from April to October; reservations should be made in advance because of the sport’s increasing popularity.
Unless you’re rafting during a typhoon, you can expect beginner- to intermediate-level rapids. No experience is necessary, and the guide will give everyone in the party a safety lesson and explanation of rafting dynamics. For the past three years, Kim and other companies have even been volunteering to help disabled people get involved in the sport. Whatever your skill level, all you really need to do is paddle, hang on and go with the flow.
There are plenty of rafting companies on Korea’s whitewater rivers that’ll be happy to suit you up. Try these links:
Dong River: www.raft.co.kr
Naerin River: www.raftingland.com
Hantan River: www.raftingkorea.co.kr
Gyeongho River: www.mslc.co.kr
Kayaking resources are harder to find. Songkang Canoe and Kayak (www.kayak.co.kr) rents kayaks, but you may have to either prove you can handle one or take their training course. The Blue Wave Kayaking Club can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by James Card